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Art, Artifice and Morality

The authors of the racy, free-associating 'Hopper's Wife' are determined to get people thinking--even if they have to endure a bit of controversy to do it.

June 08, 1997|Ken Smith | Ken Smith is an occasional contributor to Sunday Calendar

NEW YORK — It's Friday afternoon, the end of a long week of rehearsals for "Hopper's Wife," and the cast and creators of the new opera are gathered in their TriBeCa rehearsal space, finally ready to tackle the lead character's big moment.

Having just run though his scene at the piano with music director Michael Barrett, baritone Chris Trakas--as a fictionalized version of painter Edward Hopper--moves center stage to begin.

"Think of the colors," composer Stewart Wallace coaches from the side, while librettist Michael Korie focuses silently on the proceedings.

"Can you remember the blocking?" asks director Christopher Alden.

"I think I can manage," Trakas says with a touch of sarcasm as he leans immobile against the back wall. Eyes closed, he eases into what may soon become the most infamous aria in modern opera: Hopper's graphic description of a porn film he has just seen, with gory details of miscegenation and body parts and fluids rendered in X-rated language that literally has something to offend everyone.

None of the creators involved in "Hopper's Wife" questions the merit of the scene--in which Hopper finds in the basest of raw material the inspiration for great art--just as none of them denies the controversy it could ignite when Long Beach Opera presents the world premiere on Saturday at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts at Cal State Long Beach.

"I'm really not a prude, but I just couldn't imagine singing these words," Trakas says of his initial reaction. "Clearly, they'll raise some eyebrows, but the role itself is so complex that this scene should just be absorbed in the flow."

Alden, who has already dealt with an explicit libretto in the 1990 premiere of Anthony Davis' "Tania," a nonliteral retelling of the Patty Hearst story, is a little more cautious. "There's something so potent about certain types of language that even in our liberated times you can't really underestimate [the reaction]."

All of those involved in the production agree that although its frank text and occasional nudity would fly by without much incident on the contemporary theatrical stage, the show's operatic context offers the potential for much greater impact.

"Giving a work a musical framework makes quite a difference," says Long Beach Opera's general director, Michael Milenski. "The musical can seem far more real. The nudity in a good production of 'Salome' seems more intense, even if she's really wearing a body suit. But our audience isn't innocent; we have a strong theatrical crossover, and their reaction is going to depend on how powerful the piece is musically. I mean, no one will complain if it's a great production."

The only thing that Wallace and Korie themselves seem sure of is how different this show is from "Harvey Milk," their operatic account of the life and death of the gay San Franciscocity supervisor and their highest-profile production to date.

"When we did 'Harvey Milk,' we all knew that some people would love it and some would hate it," says librettist Korie. "How will people react to 'Hopper'? I don't know. For the first time, I really don't know."

In chronological terms, "Hopper's Wife" should have had its test run long before "Harvey Milk" made it to the stage. The work is actually the third of Korie and Wallace's four collaborations, but in 1992, it was put aside in part because they received a commission for the Milk production.

That opera opened to mixed reviews at the Houston Grand Opera in 1995 and received a critical savaging at New York City Opera later that spring for its lack of musical focus and slipshod production values. A revised production opened at the San Francisco Opera last fall to much better reviews.

Although critics often lumped "Harvey Milk" into "CNN style"-operas like John Adams' history-based "Nixon in China," Wallace and Korie were aiming deeper. Mark Swed, writing of the San Francisco production in these pages, found that it "universalizes its subject by taking some big risks . . . mythologizing Milk as a symbol . . . for rising gay consciousness in America."

"In many ways, 'Harvey Milk' was our most conservative opera," Korie says. "It had an antagonist and a chorus and a broad operatic scope. 'Hopper's Wife' is a much more imaginative work, both in scale and focus. Instead of large, broad strokes, we did tiny, small ones."

" 'Hopper' is much closer to my own aesthetic than 'Harvey Milk,' " says director Alden. "It's more personal and abstract, with no political agenda. Sometimes during 'Harvey Milk,' it felt like I was directing Up With People. With 'Hopper's Wife,' what seemed hysterically funny and witty in the libretto became darkly emotional once the music was added. It digs into some dark territories, into relationships and the pain of the obsessed artist."

"Both shows create a world unto itself," says Korie, "which is what all our works share."

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